Fighting famine in South Sudan: Waters offer desperate families refuge from war but little food

ITV News Africa correspondent John Ray has travelled to South Sudan, which is in the grip of the world's first famine in six years.

He visited the Sudd marshes where thousands of families are fleeing to escape the civil war. But they cannot escape the famine.

You can see the famine coming in the swollen belly of a little boy called Guy. You see it too in his younger brother, who is just as hungry.

Guy is four-years-old and for the past few months home has been a tiny island, not much more than thirty paces across, on the Sudd marshes.

They’re a vast wilderness that run for miles after miles along the banks of the White Nile – a natural barrier that once marked the African boundary of the Roman Empire.

The small island in the middle of the Sudd marshes. Credit: ITV News

No one would chose to live here, but since South Sudan’s civil war erupted three years ago many thousands have sought refuge here.

They’re safe from the fighting, but the waters cannot hold back the advance of famine.

Families have taken to the water to escape ongoing violence. Credit: ITV News

Guy shows us how, every day, he steps into the water and sets his nets to catch fish.

Some days, he says, he gets nothing to eat at all.

‘’He’s a good boy and a strong boy. A mother knows. But in these times, he gets sick a lot.’’ his mother tells me.

The family’s staple diet is the bulbs of water lilies, from which they make an unappetising porridge.

It’s keeping them alive – but only just.

The bulbs of water lilies is part of the family's staple diet. Credit: ITV News

We spent two days exploring these shifting water-ways.

They’ve become the main escape route from war.

Marissa Nydol, her son and three daughters are hauling the few possessions they could salvage through the waters for hour after exhausting hour, and day after baking hot day.

Marissa says: ‘"There’s no one left at home. There’s nothing left there. It's all gone. If God doesn’t help us, then who will?"

A young child surrounded by a family's possessions on a small canoe. Credit: ITV News

Their home in Myendit is in the heart of the famine zone and the scene of the fiercest fighting.

That’s no coincidence - both sides in this war have been accused of using hunger as a weapon.

In Myendit, a rebel-held area, the government has launched a huge offensive.

Another woman who’s fled from the area tells us the soldiers burnt their homes, their mosquito nets and even the food that had been given them by the United Nations.

Many families that arrive on the island have fled violence. Credit: ITV News

Our canoe trip was organised by Oxfam. They complain that their biggest problem is access. The South Sudanese government has promised open access to the famine zone. Instead, even the UN has been ordered to leave the worst affected area.

John Ray travels in a canoe on South Sudan's water-ways. Credit: ITV News

‘’I have this nagging fear,’’ says Dorothy Sang of Oxfam, ‘’that the people who are getting help are the ones strong enough to get out and get to us".

"There are thousands more, maybe suffering the most, that no one can reach.’’